Towards Engaged Buddhist political activity

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There is something of a dilemma at the heart of any Buddhist attempt at social and political engagement. The basis of this is that in venturing to find the causes of suffering in social and political structures one is involving oneself in (and potentially becoming entangled in) suffering itself. Some would therefore argue that Buddhism has no political and social message. It is a world renouncing ascetic tradition. There are many complex issues at stake here and, having taught university courses on Engaged Buddhism a number of times I am aware that to answer the question of whether Buddhism originally had a social message or not is in many ways misleading. What is less misleading is to consider that those who do make use of Buddhist teachings in a social and political way should be aware of the complexity and potential philosophical precipices as they strive to use Buddhist ideas to change the world. In attempting to move the focus from the adaptation and exploration of the mind to the adaptation of the world the engaged Buddhist should be mindful of the focus of Buddhist thinking in certain key areas.

The Nettippakaraṇa quotes the Udāna 81: ‘The supported is liable to dislodgement; the unsupported is not liable to dislodgement’.[1] It uses this statement to suggest how one should respond to the world. It first explains that there are two kinds of support: there is ‘support by craving, and support by view’.[2] Any choice (cetanā) of one who is lusting (rattassa), is support by craving (taṇhā-nissayo), and any choice by one who is ‘confused’ (mūḷhassa), is ‘support by views’ (diṭṭhi-nissayo). The text then states that the act of choice or volition (cetanā) leads to involvement, and this is a ‘formation’ (cetanā pana saṃkhārā). This is then used to suggest that one who lusts or holds on to view is involved in the process of dependent-origination. The text gives a version of dependent-origination based upon volitional formations, i.e. with volitional formations as condition there is consciousness, etc., sorrow, lamentation, despair and suffering.[3] This negative outcome of holding to views is familiar to us. The Nettippakaraṇa explains that both those who hold views and those who lust and crave are involved in the same process, that of dependently-originated dhammas. Involvement with these dhammas leads to dukkha.

The Nettippakaraṇa next describes how there is escape from this cycle. When there is no liability to dislodgement, there is tranquillity; when there is tranquillity, there is no inclination (nati),[4] when there is no inclination, there is no coming and going; when there is no coming and going, there is no decease and reappearance; when there is no decease and reappearance, there is no here, beyond or in between, and this is the end of suffering.[5] This is the escape from dukkha. The text explains that the unsupported is not liable to dislodgement because it is ‘unsupported by craving by virtue of calm’,[6] and ‘unsupported by views by virtue of insight’.[7] It states that: ‘insight is knowledge and with its arising there is the cessation of ignorance’,[8] and so on through the cessation of the chain of dependent-origination.[9]

The unwholesome process begins with choice or volition (cetanā), for both lust and views: objects of the senses and cognition. This gives rise to volitional formations (saṃkhārā), and to dukkha. The wholesome process begins with a turning away from objects of sense and cognition, through calm (samatha) and insight (vipassanā) which abandons ignorance and the chain of dependent-origination leading to dukkha. The Nettippakaraṇa is explaining in clear terms that the holding of views is part of the very process of dukkha.

In this discussion one might like to consider a similar process in the form of the right-view of Anāthapiṇḍika. This view is the following:

‘Whatever has become is put together, is thought out, is dependent on something else, that is impermanent. What is impermanent, that is dukkha, what is dukkha: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self’.’[10]

It is the cessation of craving, essential for apprehending this process, which the texts describe as ‘right-view’ (sammā-diṭṭhi). The Nettippakaraṇa makes this clear by suggesting that the very holding of a view is a cetanā and this is a saṃkhāra. View is, as it were, implicated in the whole process of dependent-origination. I would argue that it is not just micchā-diṭṭhi that is implicated, but sammā-diṭṭhi is also likely to be a cetanā and a saṃkhāra, and part of the process of dukkha. In the Nettippakaraṇa passage the text is, in one sense, making a distinction about the nature of the view that ‘corrects’ micchā-diṭṭhi which, in fact, corrects diṭṭhi. It corrects all views, in the sense that any view is an object of attachment. In the language of the Nettippakaraṇa, a view cannot be ‘liable to dislodgement’ (calitaṃ natthi). It is the view that is ‘not supported by views’ (diṭṭhiyā anissito) in virtue of insight (vipassanā-vasena). Right-view transcends all views.

Where there are no views there is ‘no here, beyond or in between’. This is the wholesome course of action. Wrong-view is the opposite to this. It is involved, it gives rise to volitional formations, consciousness, name and form, feelings, craving attachment and suffering. Wrong-view is always associated with greed. It is implicated in the process of giving rise to unwholesome actions. As such it leads away from insight, from right-view.

As can be seen from these passages, from a philosophical standpoint meaningful social and political action must be based upon a quite specific mental attitude. This attitude is one free from greed hatred and delusion. It is free from a foundation ensnared by a particularly firm adherence to a specific standpoint. It is free from a particularly strong sense that one holds to a particular mental bias. One could suggest that for these reasons Buddhists have concentrated on the adaptation of the mind and not on changing the world. However, in working out a Buddhist social theory the ideas being outlined here must be part of what is considered for a model of Buddhist social and political activity. Social and political action must in itself be part of a wholesome (kusala) process of body, speech and mind. It must begin by being free from adherence and attachment. Buddhist political activity must itself display those qualities it aims to achieve in society – selflessness, dispassion, the overcoming of suffering, a lack of craving and attachment. Buddhist theories of meditation are adept at describing these processes and abilities, these disciplines and mental activities. For Buddhist social and political engagement to be a realistic activity these ideas need to move beyond the mind and into the world.


[1] nissitassa calitaṃ anissitassa calitaṃ n’ atthi, Nett 65.

[2] nissayo nāma duvidho: taṇahānissayo diṭṭhi-nissayo ca, Nett 65.

[3] saṃkhāra-paccayā viññāṇaṃ, viññāṇa-paccayā nāmarūpaṃ, nāmarūpa-paccayā saḷāyatanaṃ, saḷāyatana-paccayā phasso, phassa-paccayā vedanā, vedanā-paccayā taṇhā, taṇhā-paccayā upādāna, upādāna-paccayā bhavo, bhava-paccayā jāti, jāti-paccayā jarāmaraṇaṃ, sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā sambhavanti, evam etassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti, Nett 65.

[4] I am translating the term nati as ‘inclination’. To have an inclination is a subtle craving and need, the opposite to tranquillity. See a comparable passage at S II 67 which reads: tasmiṃ patiṭṭhite viññāṇe virūḷhe nati hoti. natiyā sati āgatigati hoti. āgatigatiyā sati cutūpapāto hoti.

[5] passaddhiyā sati nati na hoti, natiyā asati āgati-gati na hoti, āgatigatiyā asati cutūpapāto na hoti, cutūpapāte asati nev’ idha na huraṃ na ubhayam antarena es’ ev’ anto dukkhassā, Nett 65.

[6] samathavasena vā taṇhāya anissito.

[7] vipassanāvasena vā diṭṭhiyā anissito, Nett 65.

[8] vipassanā ayaṃ vijjā vijjuppādā avijjānirodho.

[9] avijjā-nirodhā saṃkhāra-nirodho, saṃkhāra-nirodhā viññāṇa-nirodho, viññāṇa-nirodhā nāmarūpa-nirodho, nāmarūpa-nirodhā saḷāyatana-nirodho saḷāyatana-nirodhā phassa-nirodho, phassa-nirodhā vedanā-nirodho, vedanā-nirodhā taṇhā-nirodho, taṇhā-nirodhā upādāna-nirodho, upādāna-nirodhā bhava-nirodho, bhava-nirodhā jāti-nirodho, jāti-nirodhā jarāmaraṇaṃ sokaparidevadukkhadomansūpāyāsā nirujjhanti, evam etassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa nirodho hoti, Nett 65-66.

[10] yaṃ kho pana kiñci bhūtaṃ saṃkhataṃ cetayitaṃ paṭiccasamuppannaṃ, tad aniccaṃ yad aniccaṃ taṃ dukkham, yaṃ dukkham, tam n’ etaṃ mama n’ eso ‘ham asmi na me so attā ti, A V 188.

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